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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Full of dark humor, ‘Escape from Happiness’ extols family

Published: October 26, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.

Last weekend in Laurie Theater, the Brandeis Theater Company, the university’s primary graduate theater group, performed “Escape from Happiness.” Written by George F. Walker, directed by Doug Lockwood, who teaches at the Boston Conservatory, and stage managed by Hannah Roth ’14, “Escape from Happiness” delivered a star look at the difficult issues facing an impoverished family.

The tale of the highly dysfunctional Quinn family is central to the plot of “Escape from Happiness,” starting with Nora (Laura Jo Trexler), the mother. She lives in a cramped apartment in the east end of an unspecified large city with her youngest daughter Gail (Nicole Dalton), Gail’s fiancé Junior (Sam Gillam), their baby daughter Gwen, and Nora’s middle daughter, Mary Ann (Sarah Bedard). Nora’s husband Tom (Jonathan Young) also lives in the apartment, although she refuses to acknowledge him as her husband.

Their lives all take a turn for the worst as the play opens with Junior lying battered on the apartment’s floor, beaten within an inch of his life. Following this, police officers Mike and Dian (Brandon Green and Sara Schoch) arrive to investigate the beating, and the family is slowly dragged into the dangerous world of drugs, attempted murder, pornography, assault and other criminal actions fueled by the sense of desperation surrounding the characters throughout the show. The two criminals with whom Junior gets involved, Rolly and Stevie (Alex Jacobs and Eddie Shields) provide another plotline for the show. It adds another dimension and quickly establishes that “Escape from Happiness” will focus on the moral gray areas of life, and how it is difficult to classify many situations as either completely right or completely wrong.

The sheer intensity and depth of the character development in “Escape from Happiness” sets it apart from other shows. According to director Doug Lockwood’s playbill notes, “strength can arise from naked vulnerability,” a trait that certainly characterizes this family; each member seems to have a different type of significant issue, such as panic attacks, chronic stress and dementia-like symptoms, among others. Each character was clearly in a state of crisis, and the cast did a great job of portraying this—from Mary Ann’s obsessive need to cook, to Nora’s apparent apathy to the terrible things occurring to her family, each one gave a very believable portrayal. Conflicting decisions as to forgiving Tom for his previous actions also help define the characters, from Gail’s kind and compassionate understanding to Elizabeth’s fiery denunciations and refusal to even see him.

This is not to say that only members of the family are well developed—Mike and Dian themselves embody a conflict between traditional and more unorthodox approaches to police work, and Green and Schoch portray this very well. Their constant sniping and bickering portrayed this conflict well, as did their escalating rivalry, which culminated in a deadly standoff. Rolly and Stevie also give the audience a look at the sympathetic side of crime via their obvious poverty and desperation.

Technically speaking, the show was very well put together. While the setting of an impoverished apartment could have been constructed very minimally, the effort the tech crew had put into the set was very clear. Care had obviously been taken to get even the tiniest detail right, such as ensuring that there was an even spread of wood chips around the apartment’s edge—a touch that oddly enough added an extra feel of poverty and destitution to the set.

“Escape from Happiness” also had a great selection of props, including a real chocolate cake for one scene—this was fitting, given that it was a graduate show with access to greater resources than an undergraduate production. The audio tracks of the show, consisting of a cacophony of sounds from a city, including sirens, trains and traffic, lent another element of realism to the production, and seldom missed a beat. There were a few minor lighting hiccups that obscured some characters before their scenes were finished, but by no means did these detract from the show as a whole.

Humor provided some of “Escape from Happiness’s” most disconcerting and enjoyable aspects. The audience found itself laughing at small moments of mirth and joy in otherwise horrible situations, from Elizabeth’s sardonic one-liners during family fights to Rolly’s attempts to seem intimidating by emphasizing his “inner thug” in conversations once he’s no longer begging for his life. Rather than making the audience feel ashamed or wonder why it’s amused by such terrible things, these moments help reinforce the idea that one must follow the characters’ examples and take heart from whatever small amusements they can find in the world, even as it rapidly becomes more bleak and ominous.

“Escape from Happiness” offers the audience a powerful portrayal of a family forced to live in an undesirable situation, and how they are forced to cope with their lives. It is through the characters’ decisions, not the environment, however, that the audience sees just how far they are willing to go and sacrifice to protect each other. It’s a world where an insane family is the glue that holds sanity together.